In a mobile-obsessed world of BYODs, implementing a mobile first strategy is a direction many brands consider. In his recent MetaTalk Mobile First: Designing and Developing New Digital Experiences, Applied Design Group Principal Tim Smith covered the basics on why mobile matters, and why responsive design is only a small part of the answer.
Tim has been involved in technology design, development and marketing for over 25 years, and may be the only person you know who had his car repaired by Steve Jobs. He kindly sat down with us to expand on mobile first design.
Talk to me about implementing a successful mobile first strategy.
TS: A lot of mobile is still outsourced. It’s often an afterthought. It’s really hard to do right so many agencies haven’t built internal teams. I think the bottom line is that mobile first isn’t about designing a mobile UI and translating it out – it’s about rethinking how consumers are in the world – it’s all via mobile these days. A lot of companies haven’t fully understood mobile user behavior yet.
What brands are doing it right?
TS: That’s a tough question. Ultimately it’s the companies who exclusively do mobile only, like WhatsApp. They caught the whole world by surprise and recognized a third world need that wasn’t on most people’s radar, at least here in the US. They nailed it – but they don’t have a functional website presence, per se. Or look at Uber, Lyft, or Carma. How functional are their websites? They live and breathe out in the world. WhatsApp connected with people who have long abandoned – or never had – email.
What are the best practices for designing for small screens?
TS: Start with a clean slate. In agencies and large companies, the natural tendency is to look at current assets and scale down – and really it becomes a responsive design problem instead of a rethinking problem. Everyone uses the term responsive – but it’s not about creating responsive design. You have to re-think the entire experience. It’s not about designing for small screens, it’s about creating a completely different usage pattern.
Ignore sunk costs. Our tendency is to say “we have assets, lets’ reuse them”. Because we have invested hundreds of hours on creating those assets, we assume it’s right, or we are inclined to simply make it right for now. The sunk cost influences us in a negative way (usually).
Shoot for the moon and land on the roof. I’ve often encouraged brainstorming teams to forget what’s possible – to begin with. Throw it all out. Think what would be the most ridiculously astounding, mind-blowing experience for your target audience, and then scale down from there only where you have to. By first articulating the most magical thing you can, rather than the most pragmatic thing, you will more likely result in a unique and compelling idea.
How does adopting a mobile first strategy affect website content and design?
TS: If you can solve the problem for the consumer given the constraints (tap targets, screen sizes and resolutions, environmental implications) then you’ve probably defined the core solution. It’s paradoxically harder than working with a larger canvas. Scaling up from that core idea is much easier. Bigger screens are a luxury that you have a tendency to fill. Even if you aren’t working on a mobile project, it’s instructive to imagine a mobile solution just to get to a core idea.
You’re a die-hard entrepreneur. What drives you?
TS: Making stuff. My process is very messy. I tend to be really disruptive. If I had to give someone credit for how I like to make things it would be Joel Hladecek, the co-founder and brilliant creative director of Red Sky. He’s the messiest creator I’ve ever worked with but also inspiring. We would read briefs, take them seriously, but then say, that’s fine and good, but what if we had no constraints at all? What if we went really crazy? There’s always something to be learned from consciously ignoring constraints. It’s top down vs bottom up. Instead of starting with a bunch of Lego pieces on the table and seeing what you can build, what happens if you clear them off and instead imagine what would be the perfect – even if impossible – parts to have in front of you. If the client doesn’t have the budget, then go back to the Legos; you’ll still on balance end up with a better idea. We spent a lot of time at Red Sky being six-year-olds. The child’s mind is a powerful thing. As soon as you put boundaries around creative, that’s when you get predictable work.
Interview by Molly Davis, MetaDesign Communication Strategist.